Suicide is a serious public health problem, particularly among older adults. In 2011, the rate of suicide among adults aged 65 years and older was 15.3 per 100,000. However, suicide is a preventable public health challenge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposed a strategic direction focused on building and strengthening social and emotional connections as a means for suicide prevention.1
This strategy is based on evidence that social connectedness and social integration are protective against suicidal thoughts and behaviors, including in older adult populations.1
In 2010, the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), in partnership with Lifespan, a local aging service agency, received a grant from CDC to implement The Senior Connection (TSC), a program for older adults that aims to reduce their risk of suicide. Based on CDC’s strategic direction to promote social connectedness, TSC matches volunteer peer companions with older adults in the community (“care receivers”) who have reported feeling lonely and/or as if they are considered a burden on others.
Once enrolled in TSC, each care receiver is paired with a companion based on common characteristics and interests. Volunteer companions are in contact with their assigned care receiver weekly, and aim to have at least 2 in-person interactions per month. The pairs engage in a variety of activities, ranging from supportive phone calls, to friendly visiting at home to outings to local events or attractions. The duration and types of activities are at the discretion of both the volunteer and care receiver.
Volunteers recruited by Lifespan must be age 55 years or older and undergo thorough screening to determine whether they are a good fit for the program. Once they agree to participate, volunteers receive training from Lifespan related to peer support and how best to respond to common mental and physical conditions they might encounter among the older adult population.
As of August 2014, URMC has enrolled 240 participants from the Monroe County, NY, area age 60 years and older who met the criteria for social disconnectedness. At the time of enrollment, these individuals had elevated average depression scores and higher levels of death and suicide ideation, and nearly one-fifth of participants had a previous suicide attempt, indicating that socially disconnected older adults are at greater risk for suicide. URMC is conducting further evaluation of TSC, comparing suicide risk among older adults after 2 years of participation in the program to those who receive care as usual. Programs that promote strategies to address risk factors for suicide can help to improve the lives of individuals and reduce the risk of suicide.